After a long and crazy offseason, the 2021–22 NHL season is nearly upon us. Training camps are set to open up just under a month from now, with opening night six weeks away. In what was one of the most frantic and crazy summers in recent memory across the league, the landscape for the upcoming season saw some dramatic shifts with so much movement around the league.
One of the main teams under the microscope this summer was the Calgary Flames. After yet another disappointing season in which they fell well short of expectations, the feeling around the league was that the Flames were a team to watch when it came to making big moves. In the end though, that hasn’t happened… yet.
It seems as though another offseason has passed in which the Flames did not make any significant changes to their core roster. This begs the question, after a quiet offseason in Calgary and entering a crucial season, are the Flames even better than they were last year? We’ll be breaking down their changes in the top-six, the bottom-six, and on defence to determine where the team stands compared to last year.
Additions: Blake Coleman
If there’s one area the Flames undoubtedly got better in, it’s their top-six forward group. The Flames’ biggest need at forward was help on the wing in their middle-six and they got that and more by signing Blake Coleman to a six-year, $4.9 million AAV deal. The term is certainly worrying for a player entering his 30s, but for immediate future Coleman gives the Flames forward group a massive boost.
He brings the exact type of skillset the team has been desperately lacking in their forward group. Speed, skill, goal scoring and two-way ability. He’s able to impact both ends of the ice positively, and can be used in pretty much any situation. Courtesy of HockeyViz.com, take a look at his on-ice impacts from last season.
Coleman impacts the game positively at both ends of the ice, making him an invaluable addition to a Flames team who needs more of that. Not to mention he’s exactly the type of player Darryl Sutter will love and rely on heavily.
The Flames top-six with Coleman in the mix has options now, and whatever way you look at it their group looks much deeper and much more well-rounded with him in the lineup. If I was to wager a guess I’d expect to see something like this on opening night, (barring any further moves):
Johnny Gaudreau – Elias Lindholm – Matthew Tkachuk
Andrew Mangiapane – Mikael Backlund – Blake Coleman
This top-six group looks deeper and more talented than any group the Flames have trotted out with this core over the last few years. Last year the team used the likes of Brett Ritchie, Sam Bennett and Dominik Simon in both their first and second lines. Coleman is better than all three of those guys and it isn’t even close.
It will be interesting to see how Coleman does in a much larger role than he had in Tampa Bay. He’ll be going from playing a strictly third line checking role in Tampa to handling much more ice time with more talented linemates in Calgary. Last season he was on pace for a career best 46 points playing 15:28 minutes a night. Expect that ice time to go way up next season, with his point totals hopefully following suit.
With Coleman on the second line it also gives the team a reincarnation of the 3M line, but even better. Both Andrew Mangiapane and Coleman are incredible even strengths players and should complement each other perfectly. Here’s how they compare in terms of even strength regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com over the last three seasons. Both are very strong at even strength at both ends of the ice.
Further, from NaturalStatTrick.com, Mangiapane and Coleman ranked 22nd and 18th respectively among wingers for xGF% league-wide last season. Defensively, Coleman ranked 21st for xGA/60 and Mangiapane ranked 15th. If we look at expected goals above replacement (xGAR) over the last three season courtesy of Evolving-Hockey, both Mangiapane and Coleman are near the top of league. Coleman ranks in the 89th percentile for xGAR, while Managiapane ranks in the 95th percentile.
With the still very dependable Mikael Backlund in the middle of #88 and #20, the second line can be tasked with the heavy lifting matchup-wise. Expect Darryl Sutter to rely heavily on his second line to handle a ton of minutes against the other teams’ top players. This then lets the top line focus on what’s most important, offence.
You can argue about the longevity Coleman will have for the duration of his contract, but there’s no denying he greatly improves the Flames’ top-six forward group for at least the next couple of seasons. He may not be a top-end offensive player, but he still brings 50 point potential along with some very solid two-way play. The Flames’ top-six group is much better with Coleman around.
Additions: Tyler Pitlick, Trevor Lewis
Subtractions: Derek Ryan, Josh Leivo, Joakim Nordstrom
If there is one area in which the Flames clearly took a defined route, it was in the bottom-six. Make no mistake, the bottom-six moves this offseason have Darryl Sutter written all over them. The team deployed a plethora of replacement level forwards in the bottom-six last season, and I highly doubt Sutter is looking to do that again this season. Names like Buddy Robinson, Byron Froese and Zac Rinaldo all played in the teams bottom-six last year, which wasn’t exactly ideal.
The three main names who left were Derek Ryan, Josh Leivo, and Joakim Nordstrom with Tyler Pitlick and Trevor Lewis being brought in to replace them. The average height and weight of the players brought in is 6’2″ and 201 pounds, while for the players going out it was 6 feet and 190 pounds. That wasn’t a coincidence.
First let’s get this out of the way, losing Nordstrom was a gain for the Flames and they are better now that he is no longer on the team. Losing Leivo meanwhile hurts as he was a solid even strength player, but he struggled to produce last year and was never really trusted by the coaching staff.
The big loss for the Flames is Ryan. Ryan is an elite even strength player and was one of the team’s best bottom-six players over the course of his contract. His impact cannot be understated. Last season among Flames forwards with at least 40 games played, Ryan ranked first for CF%, xGF%, and HDCF%. He was exceptional at both ends of the ice for the Flames last year, and was a key piece for them on the penalty kill as well. Take a look at his even strength RAPM (power play RAPM is included in the image as well) from the 2020-21 season to understand just how impactful he was.
Losing Ryan is a big loss for the Flames’ bottom-six group and one that will not be easily replaced, but it’s clear Sutter has a vision in mind for how the bottom-six should look to help bring his team success. Both Pitlick and Lewis are big, strong wingers who excel at defence and eliminating chances against but not much else. Both could be defined as “eraser” type players. A Sutter favourite and the type of player that should theoretically excel in a Sutter system. Let’s take a look at their impacts last season courtesy of HockeyViz.
Pitlick is an interesting case. Before last season he had put up solid results for the Flyers and Stars as a defensive-minded bottom-six winger. However, on a weak Coyotes roster last year, he was fed to the wolves in the team’s top-six and tasked with taking on a huge role as his average ice time jumped from 12:03 in 2019–20 to 16:22 in 2020–21. His overall impacts actually looked solid last year but his individual underlying results took a hit. His CF%, xGF%, and xGA/60 all went down last season in a larger role.
The good news is the Flames won’t need Pitlick to play in their top-six, and he can be sheltered in a bottom-six role like he had been before last season. Pitlick won’t bring much of anything to the table offensively—his career high is just 27 points—but in the right role he can be a useful defensive player, especially under a coach like Sutter. Just keep him far away from the penalty kill.
Lewis meanwhile is lesser version of Pitlick. Just like Pitlick, he doesn’t bring anything to the table offensively, but he’s big, he’s aggressive and he defends well. His impacts aren’t as solid as Pitlick’s though, and he will most likely be used strictly on the fourth line. Lewis is also familiar with Sutter as the pair won two cups together in LA so Sutter should hopefully be able to get the best out of him.
Here’s how I see the team lining up in the bottom-six to start the year.
Dillon Dube – Sean Monahan – Tyler Pitlick
Milan Lucic- Trevor Lewis – Brett Ritchie
If it was up to me, I’d get one or multiple of Matthew Phillips, Glenn Gawdin, and Adam Ruzicka into the lineup but we know who the coach is. If Sutter’s time with the team last season is any indicator, it’s clear he values veterans with size and isn’t big on plugging in young guys, thus Ritchie is in the projected lineup.
When looking at the Flames’ bottom-six moves this offseason, it appears at first glance that the team got weaker. Both Ryan and Leivo are solid play drivers who can contribute offensively, while Pitlick and Lewis are one dimensional defensive players. However, Pitlick and Lewis fit the mold of players who can excel under Sutter in the system he employs.
In the right circumstances both Pitlick and Lewis can be useful players and can help the Flames win hockey games if used correctly. If one thing can be said about their moves in their bottom-six, it’s clear the team finally has an an identity and vision on the type of team they want to be. Whether or not that vision is successful is another point.
It’s up to Sutter to show everyone that these moves in the bottom-six were for the best. For now though, I can’t help but feel that the team’s bottom-six got worse since last season and the Flames will really feel the loss of Ryan, especially since he’s now on the Oilers.
Additions: Nikita Zadorov
Subtractions: Mark Giordano
If the top-six is the clear winner of the Flames offseason, the defence is the clear loser. The Flames lost their best defenceman for nothing in Mark Giordano and didn’t do much to replace him. Nikita Zadorov has his strengths, but he is nowhere near as good as Giordano and will not be able to replace the Flames’ long-time captain.
Giordano had his struggles to start the season last year, but it cannot be understated just how important and relied on he was for the team last year. Giordano was second among Flames defenceman last season for power play ice time, second for penalty kill ice time, and third for even strength ice time. Putting it all together he led all Flames defenceman in total ice time with 1284:52 minutes last year. That’s a ton of minutes to replace.
Zadorov isn’t exactly the player to replace them either. Just take a look at each players impacts at even strength, on the powerplay and on the penalty kill last season.
Zadorov excels in one area, defence. He won’t play on your power play, he won’t provide any offence, and don’t expect him to help in transition. He wasn’t even very good on the penalty kill last year either. He also takes a ton, and I mean a ton, of penalties.
No matter how you look at it, replacing Giordano with Zadorov is a massive downgrade for the Flames and leaves them in a very tough spot on the back end. Even in a year in which he struggled for half the season, Giordano’s impacts still looked much better than Zadorov’s on offence, on the powerplay, and on the penalty kill.
What was once considered the strength of the team is now their clear weakness. Their defence group right now does not inspire much confidence as it stands. Here’s how I expect them to lineup to start the year:
Noah Hanifin – Chris Tanev
Nikita Zadorov – Rasmus Andersson
Juuso Valimaki – Oliver Kylington
Let’s be honest here, we all know it’ll be Michael Stone lining up in Oliver Kylington’s spot once he is inevitably re-signed in the coming weeks. Regardless this groups looks very thin right now. With Giordano gone, it will be Zadorov who will presumably take his spot in the top-four, which isn’t a good thing.
Given his skillset, Zadorov would be much better suited in a third pairing role. As mentioned he’s solid defensively, but he has no skills offensively, and will not help with transition due to his limited mobility. He’s only had a CF% above 50 twice, in 2018–19 and 2019–20, both when he was in Colorado. His xGF% has only been above 50 once, in 2018–19. He’s the type of player you want to shelter on a third pairing to play defensive minutes, not the type to play heavy top-four minutes.
Unfortunately the Flames don’t really have any other options right now. Instead of fixing their issues on defence through actual moves, the organization is clearly counting on everything coming together for the group they have. That leaves a ton of huge questions marks right now which could backfire quickly.
Like with Pitlick and Lewis, Zadorov is a very Sutter-like player, and the team will have to hope he can excel under Sutter’s system. Perhaps he does, but right now on paper the Flames are much weaker on defence than they were last season.
One step forward, two steps back
In what could be the motto for the Calgary Flames, the team once again had an offseason that felt like they took one step forward only to take two steps back. The addition of Coleman is a great add who should give the Flames a much better top-six, but with the losses of Ryan in the bottom-six and Giordano on defence, the team got worse everywhere else.
Now Flames fans should know this better than anyone, but what’s on paper doesn’t always translate to real games. Perhaps things come together perfectly for the team and Sutter is able to finally bring this core to the next level. Of all coaches to attempt righting the Flames ship in recent years, Sutter has the best shot. The fact remains though that the team simply didn’t add enough in the offseason to make up for their losses, let alone to get better.
The team is once again hoping on a ton of factors working out in their favour. Can Tanev and Hanifin continue their strong play together? Can Andersson, Monahan and Markstrom bounce back after miserable seasons? There are just too many question marks on this roster to proclaim the Flames a better team than last year.
Let’s see how the last few weeks of the offseason go for Treliving and the Flames and if they still have another move in the chamber. If not, we could be set for yet another subpar season in Calgary.